News emerged earlier this month that applications to start new schools within Sweden’s independent school sector increased by 12 percent.
At the same time, however, a number of other investigative media reports have raised fears that the companies which operate free schools don’t always put students first.
It has been twenty years since the Swedish school system was decentralised, putting control of public schools with local municipality authorities and sowing the seeds of the free school system.
At the time, the move was meant to improve the standard of education and conditions for teachers. However, according to many, the result has been the opposite.
Nevertheless, there is much to point to the system being a success. Growth in terms of applications to run free schools, as well as from students wanting to attend, have risen annually, while governments in other countries, notably England, look on admiringly and study the feasibility of adopting the “Swedish system”.
However a spate of bad publicity in recent months has for the first time hit the front pages, with complaints ranging from lack of investment and facilities to poor teaching methods and results bringing into question the ethics of private ownership.
In February, Sweden’s education minister Jan Björklund conceded that there are several indications that in many privately-run, publicly-funded schools, profit takes precedence over quality.
A loophole in legislation has meant that free schools can choose not to have a library, student counselling, and school nurses and the minister has announced an inquiry into how free schools which fail to meet accepted standards can be prevented from taking out profits.
Broadly the argument follows political lines. The government is largely in favour of the status quo on profits, with some reservations, while among the opposition, the Social Democrats and the Left Party are against.
However, all sides generally agree that the current system needs to be reviewed.
“In my opinion there is a great risk to the quality in a school if it is run by a company,” Carl Lindberg, who served as deputy state secretary in Sweden’s education ministry under the Social Democrats from 1994-2004, tells The Local.
“The first and overall goal for a company is to produce profit for its owners, not to educate the students. It can be so low-risk to run a school, because the municipality, by law, has to pay them, on average, the same amount per student that they pay to their own schools.”
But Peter Fyles, managing director of International English Schools (IES), disagrees, arguing that Sweden’s free school system is worth retaining, despite recent cases of alleged abuse.
“It is unfortunately open to abuse, but instead of abolishing the system, we should deal with the issues in another way,” he explains.
“Our schools are owned by a philanthropist who takes almost no money out of the company, but we still make sure we invest heavily in areas such as gyms, counselling and other facilities.”
Meanwhile, a report by Skolverket, the National Education Agency, said poorer children were often left behind as “first-come, first served” admissions policies operated by many schools favour pupils with pushy parents.
Fyles, who has also advised the British government on free schools, rejects these complaints.
“Our schools are open to everyone, it is strictly queue based. I’m aware of the accusation that the system encourages segregation, but that is not the case,” he says.
“I think left-wing politicians sometimes underestimate the desire of working class parents to have a good education for their sons and daughters.”
In theory, wider choice can be said to have raised the bar in terms of educational standards.
“We have seen a clear improvement in standards overall,” continues Fyles.
“In areas where we have started successful schools, others in the area have realised that to compete, they have to raise their game, resulting in an overall improvement across the board. This is a special kind of business – if you don’t provide quality, people won’t come.”
It hasn’t always worked out so well though, according to Lindberg.
“In Norway and other countries, people have realized that the goal for a company is to produce profit for their owner not to provide students with knowledge. This is why most of the private schools in Norway have alternative pedagogical ideas as the reason for their activity.”
The one thing all sides agree on is that the rules for prospective owners to open schools need tightening and vetting of management needs improving.
“Better regulation should mean that the unfit ones are sifted out, leaving those who pass suitability tests in a stronger position,” argues Fyles, although Lindberg would rather see more focus on quality within a state-run system.
“There are many other measures that can be used to improve the quality without the risk of creating a segregated school system,” argues Lindberg.
“Committed, well-educated teachers, principals and other groups of employees, should discuss in an open atmosphere how together they can improve their school.”
Lindberg also pointed to the discrepancy between free schools and regular public schools when it comes to accessing information about the schools.
“The principle of public access to official records (offentlighetsprincipen) and the right for all employees to openly express their opinions to the press and to the parents, is of great importance for the quality of the work in schools,” he says.
“These rights are lacking in most of the private schools and particularly those which are companies.”
While Björklund has so far ruled out ditching the system of school choice that the free school system makes possible, he admits that he and his colleagues have been surprised that so many large companies have entered the market.
“The regulations weren’t created and tailored for this situation,” he admitted in a recent interivew with the Aftonbladet newspaper.
Björklund promises to “modernise” the rules governing Sweden’s free schools, including more careful inspection of those who apply to run the schools.
Such is the emotive nature of the issue, that eyes and ears in Sweden and further afield will be keenly trained on Björklund and his colleagues in the months leading up to the new school year in August.